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Caribbean ports of call – what to see, and what to pass

Caribbean ports of call

I’ve said it once – I’ll say it again: cruising is awesome! It is the way to vacation for a plethora of reasons, one (and perhaps my favorite one) being – ability to visit multiple destinations and experience different cultures, but pack and unpack only once! I absolutely take advantage of the fact that I live in Florida and have been able to book some cheap cruises (albeit mostly to the Caribbean). While I know there’s a whole world out there for me to discover (and I plan to!), this post focuses on the experience I have had with Caribbean ports of call I have visited. Some are a must see, others are, sadly, a must skip.

THE HOT

There are quite a few spots in the Caribbean that I would gladly go back to any day, and would recommend you do also. While I typically list in some sort of a ranking order, this time I am not playing favorites and simply listing the locations I like, and the reasons why I do.

Cozumel, Mexico
Conzumel, Mexico / Photo: Pixabay

Conzumel, Mexico / Photo: Pixabay

I was chatting with a friend about an upcoming cruise I was going on, and she said “This may be a rhetorical question, but does it make a stop in Cozumel?”. This is because all but one cruise I have ever been on has made a stop in Cozumel. An island located off of the eastern cost of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has a lot to offer for any type of a tourists – history buffs, diving enthusiasts, day drinkers, and anything in between!
Perhaps one of the more fascinating excursion would be touring the Mayan ruins. While most of the tours are not directly on the island and require a ferry ride to the Yucatan Peninsula; San Gervasio Archaeological Site is located at the center of the island. Admittedly, it is not as grandiose as some of the mainland sites, but it does offer a glimpse into this ancient civilization. For those seeking a grand experience may do so by visiting the mainland. Chichen Itza is a must see. It is about 45 minutes by ferry, then a 2 hour bus ride. If you are on a cruise ship, this means that you will only have about 60 minutes to explore the site and will be travelling for 5+ hours there and back, but seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World up close and personal may just be worth it. And I would strongly encourage you to book this through the cruise excursion desk rather than on your own; because this is the only way you are guaranteed to be back on the ship before it leaves the port.

Chichen Itza / Photo: Pixabay

Chichen Itza / Photo: Pixabay

The island is also home to gorgeous reefs, dive spots, beaches, and a variety of other water based activities. In my opinion, snorkeling here is good, but it doesn’t stand out from the rest of the pack. What I did thoroughly enjoy, and would absolutely recommend to anyone, would be to do a private tour of the island by renting a jeep and going bar hopping. This is even more fun if you are in a larger group – and would require at least one designated driver per vehicle; but I guarantee it will be worth it (and you can all buy shots for your trooper of a friend once you get back on the ship!). We headed to the east side of the island, and were greeted by numerous bars – some were true brick and mortar style restaurants with chairs and tables right on the beach serving typical island fare; others were small tiki huts with hammocks tied between palm trees right on the beach, and freshly prepared libations. Probably the most delicious margarita I ever had was in one of these tiki huts – made fresh before your eyes, with freshly squeezed lime juice and just the right amount of tequila – yum!

This side of the island is a bit windy, and perhaps not the most swimmer or snorkel friendly, but the water is crystal clear and the views are beautiful. Plus, when you get to the end of the beach side, you can either turn around and go back the same way you came, or you can cut through the center of the island and mingle with the locals. Our journey took a lot longer than anticipated do we just drove through town, but next time I definitely want to get to the city with plenty of time to have some tacos and drinks away from the touristy spots. Of course, as with any city, always be cautious of your surroundings and don’t venture out too far off the beaten path for safety reasons, but do allow yourself to be a bit adventurous!

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Grand Cayman / Photo: Pixabay

Grand Cayman / Photo: Pixabay

This is one of the few ports of call that I’ve been to where the ship is tendered, as opposed to docked. This definitely had an impact on the convenience factor – when a ship is docked, you can leave the ship at your leisure. Not the case here. Because we booked an excursion through the cruise desk, we had to wait for our “zone” to be called so that we can go to a ferry boat, and then be taxied to shore – a ride which took around 30 minutes. It felt a lot like boarding an airplane, something that I’m not a huge fan of. But, aside from that, everything about this island is GORGEOUS. The water is crystal clear – it felt like you could see the bottom of the ocean at all times! Because of this, there are tons of water related activities – beach tours, reef and shore snorkeling, diving, underwater adventures – you name it. A couple of activities that stand out from the bunch, however, are Stingray City and dolphin encounters.
Stingray City is located within the barrier reef that surrounds the island; and is basically a large sandbar that is inhabited by many fish species and plenty of stingrays – so, if you decide for this adventure, you will get to hang out with stingrays in their natural habitat. Because this is such a popular tourist attraction, stingrays are so accustomed to human interaction (I am still deciding if this is a good thing or a bad thing) that they are super friendly, playful, and will have no problems if you feed them, pet them, or take a picture with them. Stingray City is located about a 30 minute boat ride from the shore – so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to make it back to the ship.

Having fun with dolphin at Grand Cayman / Photo: Sanja H

Having fun with dolphin at Grand Cayman / Photo: Sanja H

The island offers several different options where you can swim with the dolphins; the one we decided on was with Dolphin Discovery. It is a large complex with several pools, and many beautiful dolphins. There were a couple of different groups with us, and each group was situated in a different pool. We got to either sit on the edge of the pool, or stand in waist deep water, while the instructor communicated commands to the dolphins. They did flips, swims, and all kinds of tricks! And we all got a high five, got to play with a ball, and got a kiss from a dolphin! Although, I have to admit, seeing Blackfish shortly after this experience, I genuinely felt bad for these beautiful mammals. I know the documentary discuses captivity of killer whales and not dolphins, but it resonated with me and made me feel exploitive.

Following the dolphin encounter, we spent some time on Seven Mile beach – where once again we were mesmerized by the crystal clear water, got to soak up some Cayman sun, and enjoyed a couple of local drinks. Noting spectacular, but absolutely relaxing.

Key West, Florida
Key West, Southernmost point / Photo: Pixabay

Key West, Southernmost point / Photo: Pixabay

You might find it silly that Key West found a place on the list of favorite Caribbean ports of call, but here it is. This was the first time I have been to the Keys; I loved it so much that I booked a vacation there in October!
It’s funny; you feel like you are at home and in some European city at the same time. We didn’t do any typical excursions, but we did take a trolley ride through the island, and learned a bit of history from the driver. We hopped off the trolley when we got close to the southernmost point – I am a tourist, after all, so I had to snap a touristy picture – but the line to the buoy was SO LONG, I improvised (resourceful is my middle name!). We then took a walk through the picturesque streets of Key West, once again admiring how European everything felt.

My favorite part of the visit was visiting the Rum Bar. Small bar with big, authentic feels, was absolutely a favorite of mine – and not just in Key West! Located on the ground floor of a boutique hotel in the heart of Old Town on Duval Street, it continues to promote that feeling of being at home, but being away. And everything is so relaxed! Our bartender (I wish I remembered his name) was an accountant in his previous life, and decided to leave all of that behind and move to the Keys and just enjoy life. While this is such a scary notion for me, it was absolutely fascinating and I loved the freedom behind his decision.
In October, I definitely plan to visit the Ernest Hemmingway House and spend more time learning about the history of the island. Plus, we will be there a week before Fantasy Fest, so who knows what kind of shenanigans we will get into!

Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras
Roatan, Honduras / Photo: Pixabay

Roatan, Honduras / Photo: Pixabay

There’s honestly not a whole lot to do here; the port has a few stores with typical trinkets you can find any other place; but what makes this place stand out for me are gorgeous beaches that are as fun as they are relaxing. In order to get to the beach closest to the port, you have to take a “Magical Flying Beach Chair” – which is essentially a ski lift, minus the snow – that carries you from the cruise center directly to the beach, and offers spectacular aerial views. Once there, you can lounge in a complimentary chair right on the beach, or you can rent a private cabana and relax in the privacy of a four post beach bed for 2! The beach has tons of nonmotorized toys and equipment that you can rent for those wanting to participate in watersports activities. A couple of bars and restaurants with “chairside” service allows you to enjoy a few drinks, without ever having to get up from your chair, if that’s your thing. There’s even a clubhouse with a ping pong table and a few other social games. Wi-Fi is also available, but because everyone is using it at the same time, signal is rather poor (nowadays, ships are Wi-Fi equipped with a reasonably priced internet packages, so there may be no need for you to use the one on the beach. And – why would you want to? Isn’t the point of a getaway vacation to completely get away? Put down the phone and enjoy yourself!).

Mahogany Bay / Photo: Sanja H

Magical Flying Beach Chair at Mahogany Bay / Photo: Sanja H

So, if you’re looking for a place where you can do a ton of different things, spend some time with the locals, learn some of the country’s history – you probably won’t enjoy this as much as I did. But if you are looking for a relaxing time, with crystal clear waters, great service, and some fun watersports – this is definitely the place for you.

THE NOT

This list is not as long as the “hot” list, but it still exists. I do feel bad about listing some of these locations on here – these nations absolutely depend on tourism (in some instances 100% so), and I certainly don’t want to hurt an already wounded nation. So, take my advice with a grain of salt (preferably on the rim of your margarita glass), and if you do venture out to these spots – I hope you find something that I wasn’t able to, and you prove me wrong!

Belize City, Belize
Belize port / Photo: Sanja H

Belize port / Photo: Sanja H

Like Grand Cayman, this was a port where the ship is tendered about 30 minutes away from the shore. This is perhaps the one and only similarity these two ports share. As you get closer to the shore, to say that the water is murky would be an understatement. The water was so dirty, I doubt it is able to sustain any type of marine life. For me, this immediately set the tone. Even before we left the ship, cruise director and excursions team on Carnival kept saying that passengers should be cautious not to venture too far off the port terminal. I assumed they were saying this just so we would purchase an activity with them, but as soon as we stepped onto the dock – I understood what they meant. The terminal was completely encased with a fence, and I saw more armed guards surrounding the terminal than I would have liked. This absolutely amplified the uneasy feeling. The terminal itself is perhaps a couple of thousand feet (few hundred meters) in length, and houses several bars, restaurants, trinket shops, and street performers. We ended up having a few beers and going back to the ship well before our scheduled departure time.

Freeport, Bahamas
Abandoned restort in Freeport / Photo: Sanja H

Abandoned restort in Freeport / Photo: Sanja H

We visited Freeport in January 2017. A few months before, in early October, Hurricane Matthew battered the Bahamas as a category 3 and 4 (meaning sustained winds anywhere between 110 and 150 mph and even stronger wind gusts), and Freeport was badly damaged. In fact, the port was opened just a week before our January cruise. Unlike any other port I’ve been to before, this port is very industrial, crowded with cargo ships and what looked like oil refineries. Token Fat Tuesday and Senor Frogs was located on the dock as well, and along with a few shops it at least attempted to make it look touristy.
We wanted to rent a bike so we could ride around the island; and one of the rental shops on the dock told us they didn’t have any, but a rental shop Port Lucaya Marketplace did. So we took a 30 minute cab ride, found the rental shop but they had not yet reopened after the hurricane. So we started walking towards the beach – and I was so surprised at the number of buildings in various stages of abandonment! In order to get to the Lucaya beach, you had to walk past an abandoned resort, alongside a chicken wire fence. On the other side of the fence was, what I can only assume, a tennis court once belonging to the resort, but now someone built a house on it!

The resort – Memories Grand Bahamas appeared abandoned for some time – there was no water in any of the pools, glass was missing off of windows, doors were missing on several rooms – it looked like a ghost city. Beach surrounding the resort was rocky and very windy – so we spent a total of maybe 5 minutes here and went in search of a bar – and even this was a task! There were several bars in the little marketplace, but none that seemed open and inviting. When travelling to a Caribbean paradise, I like to sit by the water, listen to some live music – what have you; we couldn’t find any of this. So we ended up settling at some bar (nothing spectacular about it); and when we connected to Wi-Fi, I wanted to see what the deal with the resort was. Though clearly abandoned, you could book a room at the resort; and there was even notice on the website that one of the pool was closed for repairs in December 2016!! Recent searches on the Memories Resorts website do not show the Freeport location as an option, and a quick internet search shows conflicting reports on the future of the resort.

Some websites state that the resort is permanently closed and will not be reopening, while others show the resort was reopened in late February. Not sure which is true, but either way – it wouldn’t be enough to get me to visit Freeport again. So, we ended up having a couple of beers and headed back to the ship much earlier than anticipated.

Aside from the Caribbean where I’ve spent a lot of time, my cruise bucket list definitely includes a European cruise, a transoceanic cruise, an Alaskan cruise, the “saints” cruise, and newly available Cuba cruise.

Do you have any ports to add to either the HOT or the NOT list? Would love to compare experiences!

Author: Sanja H

29 CommentsLeave a comment

  • OK I want to visit all of these places now, thanks!! I’ve been to Cozumel & Chichen Itza and had a wonderful time, there are some really good snorkelling spots around the island from what I remember

  • Ah you made me so jealous now! I am thinking about cruise in Caribbean forever! Ive been only once in Bermuda and I loved it! Such a shame you had bad experience in Bahamas tho! It seems like such a nice place ! Hopefully everything is fixed over there now !

  • One of our greatest dreams is to book a cruise around the Caribbean and visit some of the wonderful places you mentioned here. And we are totally jealous of you having to play with a dolphin! We have been scuba diving for two years, but we’ve never had any dolphin encounter.

  • Interesting perspective! As a slow traveler, I usually always find something interesting in any place (and be it just checking out the local food and markets or sitting somewhere and seeing daily life as experienced by the locals pass by). I guess, that might be one of the downfalls of cruise travel: You don’t get the time to just experience and explore. So you have to go into the ports with a fairly concrete plan of where to go and what to do.
    Then again, there are lots of ups that come with living on a moving boat…

    Happy continued travels!
    Carola

  • I have been to these places because I used to work for Norwegian Cruise Line. These are all great. I like the weather, locals, food, and environment. If I could pick a favorite port, it would be Cozumel. Whenever the ship docked there, I went out always because it was so beautiful. The water is so blue and I love the vibe. I wish I can visit that place someday again.

    • I have become FB friends with several crew members from various cruises I’ve taken (I often spend more time talking to the crew than I do other guests); and I am envious of your pictures! Where all have you been; and so you have an ultimate favorite port? Are you still in the business? Would love to hear the perspective on cruise industry from an insider!

  • I visited Belize City a few years ago, I can’t believe the cruise ship tenders there too! It’s not really a beautiful, safe city you’d associate with the Caribbean. The Cayman Islands look stunning though and I’d love to visit!

  • I’ve though about taking a cruise. I’d be afraid to miss the boat though if I were to get caught up somewhere. I’d rather travel on my own time. The pictures are very convincing though!

    • I’m a drinker – especially when on vacation – and I’ve yet to miss the boat (can’t promise it won’t happen, ha!). I guess when you know you have no other way to get home… you kind of remember to get back on the ship!

  • Thank you SO much for this article! Summer is just around the corner and it really helps to narrow down Caribbean choices. I also must admit that I have never been on a cruise, so embarrassing. Maybe this year!! 🙂

    Btw, where in Florida do you live? Miami-girl over here

    • You’re a Miami girl and you’ve never cruised?!? GURL. You can catch some super cheap deals out of Miami – it’s a huge port. I’ve done two different ones from there; and they were super reasonable. The bad side of such a big port is – lots of ships; lots of people going on cruises at the same time; so the line can be a bit long; but other than that – you need to get yourself on a ship STAT.

      I am in Tampa. So, not too far from ya!

    • What about it made it unenjoyable? Since I took my first one; I’ve been ranting and raving about them; so I always love to hear from people with different experiences than my own!

  • Awesome tips and beautiful pictures. I’ve always wanted to visit the Caribbean! Got to say I’ve never been interested in cruises as I feel I would get bored, but you shed a new light on them. Thanks!

  • I’ve always been a little iffy about cruises. I’ve never done one, but I just don’t know if I’d like being herded on and off a boat and told what time I need to be back, etc. I need to give them a chance, though, because like you said, it’s a hassle-free way of seeing a bunch of different places!

  • I’ve never been on a cruise but when I take my first one it’ll almost certainly be the Caribbean! I’m not sure how I’d be able to pass up on anything though!
    With that being said, I did visit Belize City last year and totally see why it made your not list. If you were to take a boat from the port over to either Caye Caulker or Caye Ambergris, though, that’s a whole other story!

    • I have some friends that vacation there often; I’m not sure of the place but cage Ambergis sounds familiar and they are super pleased. Maybe I’ll venture out one day!

  • I am not sure if cruises generally are something for me.. but: a cruise in the Caribbean is something that is even tempting to me! 🙂 All the destinations seem like a dream to me; the perfect trip. I am glad we will go to Mexico soonish and precisely to the Yucatan region, otherwise I would be very jealous 😀

  • All the beaches are just so gorgeous. And I am particularly interested in those Incan ruins. I sure would want to examine them closely. Thanks for sharing these with me. Cheers

  • All these ports are quite something! I have only been to the one in Mexico, but they all reminded me to this amazing Mediterranean Harbor in Mahón, is one of the biggest natural ports in the world! You should check it out =)

  • Hi, you are lucky one that you can go on trip like this, from my part of word is more trouble :(. But hope day i will get on cruise and visit a few places. I also think that’s a interesting way for knowing the world 🙂

  • Loved reading your blog! Lovely photos & great info. It’s nice to read about places I have visited. I’m always cruising, as I travel with my husband (he works onboard). I just started my blog, as I went on a world cruise for the first part of the year., so it was time to start! Looking forward to reading more of your blogs.
    Happy Travels!
    Lucy
    http://www.lucywilliamsglobal.com

  • I too enjoy cruising. When I lived in Miami I took one of those day cruises (cruise line is now closed) Freeport and had an extra stay of two day and it was amazing and beautiful. Sad that it is now like this. Hopefully with time and investments they can turn it back into what it was. I have also took a cruise to Key West and Cozumel and I had the time of my life. If you haven’t done it already a feature blog post could be about Dos and Donts or what to bring for cruises. After going on so many I’m sure you are an expert by now lol

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Caribbean ports of call – what to see, and what to pass